Unparenting is a word often bandied about by critics of unschooling and by those in unschooling communities who like to debate or criticize one another about parenting styles, family life and unschool methodologies. Folks who use this word, unparenting, imply that parents are uninvolved in their children’s lives, don’t make demands of their children, let children run the household, let children do whatever they want or don’t discipline. We have some thoughts on this word too, its use, and relative merit in discussions and understanding.
I will add that this is not a new discussion and not unique to just unschooling and unschooling critics. We cannot know what is happening in others’ families so why try?
The life lesson I have learned is that context is everything. As mentioned, this discussion has played out many times. One such discussion that I was involved in was carried out in the context of contrasting a public education, with its invasive approach to learning, to a homeschooling approach.
The best wisdom that group of dedicated parents could come up with was that homeschooling (remember, I’m a radical unschooler who still self-identifies as a homeschooler) contrasted to public schooling is benign neglect. Now I’m very comfortable with that because I have come to understand how children learn, how they assume responsibility.
Tell me how you have come to understand benign neglect.
Again, this term came up in discussions contrasting conventional educational wisdom vs. how homeschoolers saw their role in their kids’ learning. Neglect was, and is, a criticism you hear. Benign neglect pretty much became the ‘insiders’ joke.
As an example, there was this “educational” game making the rounds of the resource lists. It was developed by certified teachers and early childhood experts and was guaranteed to provide the perfect learning experience. What ‘we’ collectively grew to see that these kind of games were designed to basically ‘trick’ kids into learning something someone else thought was important.
The flip side, the benign neglect side, preferred to give our kids a set of blocks, or legos, Playmobiles or whatever, stand back and let the kids design the games themselves. Instead of the responsibility being on the shoulders of the experts to come up with the educational experience it was shifted to the kids.
I remember the benign neglect accusations in years past, too. I came to feel honored to own the label, as it meant to me that I was not educating my children through controlling them with curricula, grades and assignments but through the ever-changing creative environment, rich conversations and open-ended experiments with life, people and whatever captured my kids’ curiosity from one day to another.
Let’s unpack this unparenting thing. What are today’s allegations (which I read as misunderstandings or differences in philosophy)?
The current accusation is “unparenting.” Let’s dissect the accusations:
1. Uninvolved in their children’s lives: I admit that unschooling is a lifestyle that leaves a lot of doors open for interpretation, confusion and misunderstanding. When I was mothering my kids in the early years of unschooling, I ran into much befuddlement not only from mainstream educating friends and relatives but traditional homeschool friends as well. My approach to unschooling, to listen, follow and support my child’s questions and interests while doing my level best to engage them in new ideas, places, people and things was a far cry from what most folks expected of me. Completely absent in my unschool were lesson plans, grades, schedules, or forced learning of any kind. I even recall on occasion when someone would tell me about their strict educational plan–whether as homeschooling or attending school–and ask me how my family’s educational life compared. I remember sometimes saying we did “nothing!” We certainly did nothing like they did. How we lived our life was so radically different than the way others were living that I would not have been surprised at all if they accused me of unparenting behind my back.
In reality, I, and we as a family were fully engaged with one another most hours of most days. Sure, I supported all opportunities for exploration on their own or travel with others, but for the most part we all shared common space, knew what each was up to, engaged with each other on our own terms, supported one’s own and each other’s curiosities, experiments, research and projects. It was rare that I could predict what a day would look like and almost never that two days looked the same. We were open to inspiration, mood, visitors, last minute plans of all kinds. In short, we were as far from uninvolved with our kids’ lives as parents can be, just not involved in the ways the traditional world is involved with kids–through managing, controlling, tracking progress.
2. We don’t make demands of our children: In my unschooling home, this was largely true, at least on the surface. When asked, I would say that I did not make, bribe or otherwise coerce my children to do anything they did not want to do. That commitment I made to my mothering style early on required a monumental shift in my understanding of children, their abilities and in my communication style. I knew that my children deserved to be treated the way I wished to be treated and I knew I had never liked feeling that someone could force me to do anything, or make demands of me that I was not comfortable making. Underneath the surface of this murky standard (or criticism) however, things look very different: as I considered the value of character education, for example, things like compassion, understanding, selflessness, generosity, or helpfulness, it seemed that the only possible way to “teach” these things to children was by example. Could I live a life that embodies those qualities and could I do it without turning them into “teaching moments”? Could I surround myself with people who valued and lived life according to such standards? That was my challenge, the learning experience was mine, my children only had the opportunity to pay attention or not. Each person’s life is full with stimuli coming in from all angles: what gets noticed varies from person to person, how the information is processed varies according to a wide range of factors and what gets used or saved for the future can be unpredictable. What we know is that within our family communities, parents are important to children and serve as primary role models. What is normal in one family is abnormal in another.
3. We let our children run the household: On this point I must say that I have witnessed some of this among unschooling families and I categorically don’t agree with this standard. I think it’s downright dysfunctional. Just as I would revolt if a father, for example, ran the household–making demands of others, not holding himself to the same standards as other family members, expecting his word to be valued as law–I certainly cannot see the value of creating an environment in which the children run the household. Parents are not slaves to children, just as children are not slaves to a dominant parent. No one benefits in this scenario, especially the children, as such interpersonal dynamics falsely teach inequality. In my perfect worldview of unschooling, mutual respect is what works. This is accomplished by first respecting the infant and young child: I listen when they cry or talk, I assist readily and eagerly when help is needed, I provide a safe and nurturing environment that feels good. When respect is integral to the lifestyle, mutual respect becomes as easy as breathing.
4. We let our children do whatever they want: On a scale of one to ten, where one is no way ever and ten is always, I come pretty close to a ten in my strong and positive views of this statement. I don’t believe that children raised in a loving, respectful environment are looking for ways to irritate us as parents, destroy property or hurt themselves. With that said, I believe children’s wishes and desires are genuine to who they are. Each of them will manifest differences in food preferences, sleep schedules, mood fluctuations, friend time, play times and in all activities. I want my child to express herself genuinely, not according to what she thinks I want. Her ability to grow, learn and see the world through her own developing uniqueness is paramount to me. When my son, at age five, told me he wanted to fly off our rooftop, my response was not NO, are you crazy?, but rather, WOW!, It would be so cool to fly! Let’s figure out how you can fly! We fantasized about it, made a flying cape, practiced flying off steps, then chairs, then tables. By that time he had immersed himself enough in flying and learned exactly how gravity works. He never mentioned flying off the roof again. Of course, all that was said in #3 above, also holds true: all of our thoughts and actions, especially our actions, can have effects on those around us. Learning how to explore the world in freedom and respecting others is what life is all about.
5. We don’t discipline our children: If this makes me an unparent, then I am guilty. I don’t discipline my children. There, I said it. I have learned through my own experience in this lifetime that external discipline is not only meaningless but counterproductive. What I value is self-discipline, learned by watching others and learning from their experiences, and through the process of being comfortable enough with one’s self that the process of interest–desire–experiment–success or failure–experiment–success or failure–education–growth–knowledge flows according to one’s always evolving sense of how the world works, on all levels. When my child hits a baseball through my window he runs to me to tell me about it. We assess the damage and figure out how to fix it. We evaluate whether anything could have been done differently now or in the future. We trust the process of accidents, emotions, communication, resolve, growth. We are all involved.
It’s been fun dissecting this. As I think about it though, I don’t find any value in judging another’s unschooling or parenting style. Not only is there a huge margin for error and misunderstanding, but it separates us instead of creates opportunity for connection and growth, and besides, working on perfecting our own lives and that of our family’s is already a full time job. Is our time really best spent criticizing others?